Amnesty International has a moral mission: ‘to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of human rights’. Could that be an impossible mission for an organisation that calls for military intervention on human rights grounds? This question arises from an attempt to understand Amnesty International’s role in the war in Syria.
Critics have argued that by justifying military action against the legitimate government of Syria, Amnesty International was complicit in producing an avoidable humanitarian catastrophe: this is not to say those state powers seeking regime change in Syria waited on Amnesty’s blessing; but their action was lent legitimacy in the public’s eyes by Amnesty’s clear support for it.
Whatever one thinks of the criticism, I believe we have reason enough to ask: did Amnesty International do more harm than good for human rights in Syria?
That will be the question for my next blog, but I meanwhile have something to say as a prelude to that fuller inquiry.
As a decades-long supporter of Amnesty International, I would never wish to undermine its moral mission. As a troubled observer, though, I have concerns about how Amnesty pursued its mission in Syria (and recently I suspended my support for that reason). As an investigative philosopher, I believe the problem can usefully be analysed by reference to the mission itself.
Amnesty’s mission – ‘to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of human rights’ – is perhaps really not one mission, but four:
– to undertake research focused on ending grave abuses
– to undertake action focused on ending grave abuses
– to undertake research focused on preventing grave abuses
– to undertake action focused on preventing grave abuses.
The two undertakings focused on ending abuses were foundational for Amnesty International. To identify and bear witness to cases of wrongful arrest and inhumane treatment, particularly of prisoners of conscience, was the original research aim, as most supporters understood it. The findings of the research were then the basis of actions aimed at putting public moral pressure on the perpetrators to end the abuse. There are limits to the effectiveness of moral pressure, to be sure, and there has always been debate within Amnesty about its stance towards more forceful kinds of persuasion. Such debates can be difficult ones. But difficult is not the same as impossible.
The third undertaking is not impossible either: a competent research team can engage in investigations aiming to identify impending threats to human rights. It is perfectly possible to engage in research so focused, although whether the findings will be proven correct, of course, is quite another matter. The nature of the research will centrally involve the methods and approaches of social scientists, and this sort of research does not generate exact predictions. If the third undertaking is difficult rather than impossible, though, it is because of its relatively modest ambition. It is modest in relation, specifically, to the fourth.
The fourth undertaking, ‘action focused on preventing grave abuses’ could mean wildly different things. Simply doing research into causes of potential abuses might be regarded as a kind of action; it is certainly an activity. On a starkly contrasting interpretation, the action could be very decisive and material. Even military intervention is included under a hawkish interpretation of action focused on a purported responsibility to protect against grave abuses.
So which interpretation should be taken to define Amnesty’s mission? I dare say some supporters of the organisation may assume its moral mission does not include the promotion of harmful force. Yet the interpretation allowed by the organisation today does not preclude even the promotion of war.
In allowing that interpretation, Amnesty International must answer the question of what ethical criteria, exactly, it invokes when it decides whether to advocate for a war.
I think this is an impossible question in a practical sense because every specific context in which it would arise will have myriad distinctive complexities, as well as uncertainties and imponderables. Any general guidelines set out in advance will need to be adapted to the specific case, which means you’d need to have criteria for permissible adaptations, and then guidelines for them, and so on.
It is also impossible in a more fundamental moral sense: for the question is about the conditions under which action focused on preventing grave abuses of human rights can permissibly violate human rights. I believe Amnesty International’s ordinary members and supporters generally think the organisation should not be in the business of assessing which human rights violations are permissible. They will assume that none are. If I am right in the reasoning here, then, by allowing a hawkish interpretation of its fourth undertaking, Amnesty renders its own mission impossible.
I wonder if the millions of ordinary honest men, women and children who support the moral mission of Amnesty International might want to think about taking a stand in relation to the organisation itself.
In my next blog, I shall turn to a question that might encourage that thinking. It is the question that prompted these preliminary thoughts: how well has Amnesty International fulfilled the overarching moral imperative of protecting people’s human rights in Syria?
 Full references for the relevant criticisms will be provided in the main discussion that will follow in the next blog. Here I would just like to thank those who, following my recent discussion of the testimony of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) on Syria, encouraged me to press a related question about Amnesty International. The fellow investigators I’ve learned a great deal from are numerous, but I’d like to mention particularly Tim Anderson, Eva Bartlett, Vanessa Beeley, Patrick J. Boyle, Jean Bricmont, Tony Cartalucci, Adrian D., Joe Emersberger, Jan Oberg, Gunnar Øyro, Rick Sterling.
 See, for instance, the paper by Suzanne Nossel who, at the time of its publication, was Director of Amnesty International USA, ‘Advancing Human Rights in the UN System’, IIGG (International Institutions and Global Governance Program) Working paper May 2012.